Category: Stories

Sherrie Lawson

Washington Navy Yard 

It was 2am and I was distraught and exhausted. I had not been able to sleep for more than three hours at night. Anxiety made it extremely difficult to fall asleep and once I hit the REM stage of sleep nightmares played on repeat. I was constantly running from shadows, ducking behind walls, hearing rapid gunfire, tripping over other people and trying to get to get to safety. It had been two months since the Navy Yard shooting and I couldn’t seem to go back to ‘normal’.

I was seeing a therapist who had just informed me that she didn’t know how to help me. I was being referred to a psychiatrist. I was scared. Friends and family were ready for me to ‘get over it’. I didn’t feel like I had anyone to talk to about the emotions, panic attacks, anxiety, and this overall new way of life. I’ve always been a social person, very outgoing and fun. I now rarely left my condo for anything other than work. For some reason I couldn’t seem to make it to the Bikram yoga classes I loved and had attended for six years. I no longer met friends for happy hour or live Jazz. I sat at home staring into space, listening for noises, and scared of my own shadow. I desperately needed a safe space.

I took to Google and began searching for support groups. There were support groups for cancer survivors, domestic violence victims, etc. Surely, there was a support group for those who had survived mass shootings. It took a few different keywords in the search box, but finally The Rebels Project  website stared back at me from my laptop. I explored the website, already feeling some renewed hope as I realized it was founded by former Columbine students. They would get it. They would understand. But would they accept me? I hadn’t been shot or physically injured. ‘My’ shooting had not happened in a school. Was I even considered a ‘real’ survivor? I asked myself these questions as I typed an email to Jennifer Hammer and Heather Egeland requesting to be added to the closed Facebook group.

The next day I received a response and for the first time since climbing the 10ft brick wall to safety, I breathed a sigh of relief. They welcomed me with open arms. I was introduced to the Facebook group full of survivors from various mass shootings. I immediately felt loved, supported, and a part of something positive. Here I could ask questions, describe what I was experiencing and receive feedback from those who had been through something similar. I no longer felt so alone or like I had to hide my true emotions and pretend like I was alright.

Seven months later an Uber driver dropped me off in front of Aurora Central High School where I met Heather Egeland for the first time. We rode together to the Columbine Memorial to meet up with teens from Newton, Connecticut. It was pouring rain but nothing could dampen my mood. After viewing the memorial, we all went to dinner. I remember standing in the midst of my new ‘family’ who embraced me and more importantly understood where I was in my recovery process. I made connections that day that have literally saved my life. The Rebels Project is an amazing organization full of strength and resilience. I am forever grateful and honored to be a part of this family.

Passing the Time

Heather Egeland, Columbine survivor and Rebels Project co-founder

I’ve mentioned before that I don’t watch the news. I avoid it at all costs, actually. So it’s no surprise that I didn’t know until the day it was happening that the Columbine memorial was being unveiled. I was at my parent’s house, stopping by before I had to be at work that evening, when my mom asked if I was going to the unveiling. At first, I told her no, that I had to be at work by five.

Then I started wondering if I would regret not going, if I would be at work all night distracted and thinking about it. In the past, I have avoided just about anything connected with the shootings. Typically, I went out of town on anniversaries, up to a secluded cabin in Estes Park, a road trip down to visit friends in New Mexico, or a girl’s road trip to stay with friends and family in Oklahoma. Not only did I want to avoid the media that crowded our neighborhood every year, but I also wanted to avoid the reminders – I didn’t want to see Clement Park and think of all the flowers and people weeping into each other’s arms. I didn’t want to be reminded of seeing my second-period teacher with blood on her shirt hugging me as we stood on the grass beside Pierce street. I didn’t want to remember how it felt to be practically comatose with shock as the police went around and gathered our statements to determine what the hell had happened that spring day in April.

As I thought about all these horrific snapshots from my past, I came to realize that I was skipping out on opportunities to make new memories -ones without horror. Of course I would never forget the events of that day, but because I was determined not to face them, I was keeping myself from accepting that my life would not ever be the same as it was before the shooting.

That I would forever be changed.

So my mom and I headed to the memorial. We had to park across Bowles and walk because of the crowds, and the media was back in full force.We steered clear of the cameras and made our way to the stage where the dedication would be made. I remember that it was a beautiful day and the sun was shining down as Dawn Anna and Patrick Ireland spoke.

And most of all I remember the doves. They released 13 doves to represent those we lost that day and about a hundred more to represent the injured and the community. And while I never actually walked down to read the inscriptions or plaques on that day, I took a giant step by attending a Columbine related function – something I had avoided doing for almost 9 years. This small step eventually led to me visiting the school on our 10 year anniversary, but that’s a story for another time.

On the 17 year anniversary, today, I will be with loved ones and feeling grateful for all the new people I have met along the way.
Thanks for reading – there is a lot of love in this world, don’t forget to notice it.

Joseph Pazar, Sparks Middle School Survivor

Malcom Gladwell explains the concept of a near-miss and remote-miss in his book David and Goliath. A near-miss leaves someone devastated both physically and emotionally while a remote-miss leads to a path of growth and increased strength. My story is one of anxiously trying to turn my situation into a remote-miss, an epiphany about my efforts, and my new outlook on life.

October 21st, 2013 a 12-year-old student came to school with a 9mm handgun he retrieved from a cabinet above the family fridge along with two loaded clips. After arriving at school he walked to the back field and basketball courts. Withoutwarning he began shooting students. Michael Landsberry, a mathematics teacher, marine, and Afghanistan war veteran, heroically tried to stop the shooter but was fatally shot before he could reach him. In themean time, while inside the building I heard screams. For about 5 to 30 seconds (I really can’t be sure – things went into slow motion) I stood in my classroom. The hair on the back of my neck stood up, my body began to tense, and I remained still. My brain screamed that it was just kids playing tag, they always yelled before school began. Something deep within me didn’t agree – the tone was off, so I headed down the hall. I met two other teachers at an exterior door where we let in frightened students who had just experienced a gun in the face and watching a teacher get shot. It wasn’t until later that we learned from police that while we were letting those students in, the shooter was just around the corner changing clips, and then tried to get in the same door. Thankfully we were already hidden by that time. We quickly made our way into the nearest lockable room. One amazing teacher kept the kids calm while I called 911, the other secured the door, and we then waited it out. I watched the door for what felt like hours, thinking about what I would do if someone tried to get in. We took all the phones from the students to control noise. I’ll never forgethaving about five phones in my pockets, and having almost all of them begin to ring (vibrate because we had them silenced) at the same time. The news had broken, parents feared the worst but we couldn’t answer. It would make too much noise.

In the end, we lost Mr. Landsberry, two students were critically wounded, and many more teachers and students had bumps and bruises from jumping over fences, diving behind corners, and hiding behind anything in site. The shooter wasn’t used to firing such a weapon and was reported to have pretty bad aim. This one fact along with the interference of Mr. Landsberry saved countless lives. Teachers checked their clothes after hearing and feeling bullets pass but not actually getting shot. It was that close for a number of people. The police report would later reveal that the troubled shooter had played a Columbine video game, researched that horrific event extensively, and left a haunting note. Ultimately he took his own life and left a large hole in ours.

As you can imagine, everyone had a different experience during those horrifying minutes. There are moments that continue to bother me; the “What ifs?” My initial response was one of numbness, no tears, no feeling, no pain, just a slow recovery from adrenaline and shock. That morning I was busy getting ready for the day in my own math classroom and a shooting was the furthest thing from my mind. As a teacher, I couldn’t help but experience moments of guilt. Did I do enough? What could I have done differently? Worst of all – why didn’t I realize what was going on sooner? You have to realize that even a single minute feels like forever when your senses are heightened and you realize life-threatening danger is present. Would this be a near-miss or a remote-miss? These are all questions that kept me up late into the night, caused me to drink just a little too much, and threatened to propel me into a state of depression. Ultimately, it is my hope that sharing some details of my own journey will assist another going through a similar situation.

In the weeks immediately following the event, things followed a somewhat predictable course. The brotherhood felt among teachers was stronger than I ever thought possible; we mourned together, drank together, ate together, even traveled together. The first time I really lost it emotionally was after the last day of school and our “last supper.” I called a crisis hotline drunk – it wasn’t pretty, but they were really helpful! People were beginning to go their own ways, moving to other schools, beginning anew, and we all knew things would be different. It literally tore my heart out. You see, a teacher has to be strong. We had to show up, teach, and be there for students. While I was far from perfect, this responsibility took its toll. The last day of school was different. The reality of what happened hit, there was no longer a need for so much strength, and while the bonds formed among our group will never be broken, I knew our relationships were about to change. We were beginning to move on.

In the months following the last day of school, I became almost obsessive about making this a remote-miss. You see, a remote-miss gives people a sense of invincibility. I survived that horrible day so I can definitely handle this thing called life, right? A near-miss is so traumatic that the feeling of invincibility and strength never come, just pain and trauma. I was losing interest in everything I cared about, even my favorite TV shows. However, I forced myself to pretend and participate as much as I could. Over time things improved, life got a little easier, and I had hope. But the pressure of making this a remote-miss was still as strong as ever. Every news report of another shooting, especially the school ones, set me back. It was frustrating. However, there was a pivotal moment when things began to change.

I finally decided to talk with a therapist regarding the whole event (I’m a very stubborn person). With heart pounding and voice trembling, I scheduled a session with an office on the list we were given by the district. I drove downtown, searched for parking, and finally made it to the door just on time. The building was black and door locked. I waited for fifteen minutes, called the number with no answer, and proceeded home. About a day later the office called completely horrified that they forgot to put me on their calendar. I wasn’t mad but there was no way I was going back! For some elusive reason, after that phone conversation it hit me. I had been making a grave mistake by oversimplifying the near-miss and remote-miss idea into thinking that one path would lead me to a happy existence while the other would ultimately leave me with perpetual pain; a gross over-simplification indeed! In that moment, I promised myself to stop trying to completely control my feelings and recovery. If I ever wanted to try seeing a therapist again, I would. I began embracing good days to the fullest, and I stopped fighting the bad moments. Every time I was startled at school while teaching, I would take a “bathroom break” and just breath for a moment instead of pretending it didn’t happen. At some deep level, certain student sounds remind me of the screams on that day. The screams I thought were just kids playing tag. That is okay… take a moment. Every time someone mentions a 9mm, it’s alright to feel disgusted. I absolutely hate that gun! It may be irrational, but I don’t care. I’d like to melt every one of those guns and send the material into space never to been seen again. That’s alright.

The epiphany that my feelings and the way I was handling the situation were adequate, as simple as it sounds, has changed my life. If there are any teachers out there still feeling guilty for not doing x, y, or z, or if anyone affected by violence and trauma feels badly about the way you are reacting, take a deep breath and realize that we cannot control everything. I have found that being okay with who I am, how I reacted on that day, and how I feel day-to-day is perhaps the single most important part of my journey thus far. I still have sad moments and truly panic if I forget my school keys at home (keys save lives). I remember telling the school secretary after I realized my keys were at home that if she didn’t give me a spare, I was leaving immediately. Thankfully, she got me a key! There may come a day when I’m around a large number of people and don’t immediately formulate my “What if there is a shooting plan,” but until then, I will plan away and be ready because that is what makes me feel safe. I encourage you to embrace your journey, realize that progress can and likely will be slow, and keep striving for peace. We don’t have to “recover” within anyone’s timeframe. We can have symptoms and struggles and still be resilient and successful people. We can feel weak and still be strong. We can be both near and remote-misses.

Beer, Cheer and Finding Peace

Join the Columbine community and The Rebels Project as we host a raffle and silent auction on Black Friday to help support the ongoing maintenance and repairs of the Columbine memorial. A portion of funds raised will go towards supporting and connecting survivors of mass tragedy across the nation.

When: November 25, 2016 (Black Friday)

Where: A Columbine alumni-owned establishment:

Resolute Brewery: 7286 S. Yosemite St. #110, Centennial, CO 80112

Time: 6pm-8pm (raffle and silent auction)

 

Please contact Zachary Cartaya or Heather Egeland for more information:

Zachary@rebelsproject.org

Heather@rebelsproject.org

The Rebels Project was formed by Columbine survivors in the wake of the Aurora theater shooting to help provide support from people who had experienced a similar trauma. Since conception, we have reached out to survivors from across the country.
Our members offer varied unique experiences and can relate to each other in a way that is invaluable to the ongoing healing process. Here are some words of hope to other survivors –

Please donate to The Rebels Project to help us continue our work.

Columbine
Newtown
Virginia Tech
Aurora theater shooting
Azana Spa shooting in Wisconsin
Heath High School
Chardon High School
Washington Navy Yard
New Life Church (Colorado Springs, CO)
Umpqua Community College
Sparks Middle School
Renown Hospital shooting
Cedarville Rancheria
Cokeville Elementary Hostage and Bombing
Accent Signage shooting
Bataclan
Tucson, AZ shooting

With the upcoming 20/20 Special with Sue Klebold a lot of Columbine survivors have been speaking up and sharing their thoughts within our community. One thing that comes up is the inaccuracy and manipulation of previous “Special Reports” through out the years. Something that caught my eye while discussing this with others today, was an open letter a survivor of the Columbine shooting who is now in a wheel chair received from Sue and Tom Klebold. She wrote this post on her Facebook page and it was something that I wanted to share because it makes me think about what happened to us Columbine Survivors, but it also makes me think about how I myself, feel about the parents of the Dylan and Eric.

Anne Marie

Dear Sue Klebold,
I was injured at Columbine High School in 1999. As you know, your son Dylan, and his classmate, Eric Harris, killed 13 people and then themselves. You are releasing a book called, “A Mother’s Reckoning”, and are appearing tomorrow on the TV program 20/20 to talk about what happened and what your son did. I have only two instances to form an opinion on you and they are as follows:

1. You and your husband wrote me a letter a few months after I was paralyzed saying how sorry you were. It was genuine and personal. The Harris letter, on the other hand, was four sentences long on a folder up piece of paper, and was cold and robotic. To refresh your memory, it read like this:
“Dear Anne Marie,
Our prayers have been with you each day as we read about the terrible ordeal you and your family have experienced. We read that you had been transferred to Craig Hospital, and we were so thankful that you had progressed to the point where you could enter a rehabilitation facility. Though we have never met, our lives are forever linked through this tragedy that has brought unspeakable heartbreak to our families and our community. With deepest humility we apologize for the role our son, Dylan, had in causing the suffering you and your family have endured. Your recovery process will be a long and difficult road, and we hope that the support of people all over the world will help you find strength and courage as you meet the many challenges you have yet to face. When we read reports of your progress, we marvel at your resolve. It is still terribly difficult for us to believe that the son we knew could play a role in causing harm to you and others. The reality that he shared in the responsibility for this senseless tragedy is beyond our comprehension. We offer our love, support, and service as you and your family work to gain control over your lives. May God watch over you during your recovery process and beyond. May each day bring you successes, however small, that bring you hope and encouragement.
Sincerely,
Sue and Tom Klebold

2. I was contacted by ABC to comment for the 20/20 special and they told me that any proceeds from your book (aside from publisher’s costs) will go to helping those with mental illness. Six months after Columbine happened, my mother, Carla, committed suicide. She was already suffering from depression so the shootings didn’t directly cause her to do what she did, but it certainly didn’t help. It means a lot to me that you wouldn’t keep those proceeds for yourself, but to help others that suffer from mental illness.

I think it’s appropriate that the program that you are appearing on is named “20/20”. Hindsight is truly 20/20 and I’m sure you have agonized over what you could have done differently. I know, because I do the same thing with trying to think of ways I could have prevented my mother’s death. I have no ill-will towards you. Just as I wouldn’t want to be judged by the sins of my family members, I hold you in that same regard. It been a rough road for me, with many medical issues because of my spinal cord injury and intense nerve pain, but I choose not to be bitter towards you. A good friend once told me, “Bitterness is like swallowing a poison pill and expecting the other person to die.” It only harms yourself. I have forgiven you and only wish you the best.
Sincerely,

Anne Marie Hochhalter

Card Front

Card Open

 

One of the things I have often heard from other survivors is that they had no idea we existed. However, once they join our group they feel immediate relief that someone understands what they are going through. The beauty of The Rebels Project is that we have so many members; each with their own story and unique perspective, so once someone joins, they are able to find someone who they can connect with. Unfortunately, these connections are usually forged over the internet. We aim to raise funds to bring survivors together so they can meet in person, so they can deepen those instant bonds that will last a lifetime and keep them from feeling alone during dark times.

Please help us connect survivors by donating to our cause.

For the past two summers The Rebels Project has hosted a meetup that included survivors from Columbine High School, Aurora Movie Theater, Washington Navy Yard, Azana Spa, and teens from Newtown, Connecticut.

The group began the meetups at the Columbine Memorial and proceeded to have dinner at a local restaurant. These meetups have been rich opportunities to share hugs, stories, and encouragement. Planning for larger events which will include more survivors is in process! Meeting up physically is energizing, encouraging and helpful in the healing/recovery process.